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Oswald BlumhardtBOOK REVIEWS

Oswald Blumhardt
New Zealand Plant Pioneer

Catherine Ballard
David Ling
Distributed by David Bateman

Reviewed by Murray Dawson

Too often our horticultural experts, plant breeders, and skilled nurserymen and women fade into anonymity. Not so for the late Oswald (Os) Blumhardt thanks to the well researched biography written by Catherine Ballard.

As recounted by Ballard, Os Blumhardt (1931-2004) was of German descent but born in the North Island of New Zealand, where he lived for most of his life. He was raised on a dairy farm, and in 1949 left home to undertake a Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture apprenticeship at the Duncan and Davies nursery in New Plymouth.

The apprenticeship provided Os with the training to set up his own nursery on his parent's property. His nursery, located near Whangarei in Northland, was called Koromiko Nursery, and according to Ballard was named after the hebe plants that were first raised there.

As a skilled plantsman, Os was an active member of many societies, including the Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture, the New Zealand and International Camellia Societies, the Magnolia Society, the Lily Society, and the Orchid Society.

He was an avid plant collector and breeder, and these activities form the basis of subsequent chapters. Assembling the large and unique collection and the careful breeding work that followed was Os's passion, and no secret is made that he was better at this than running a solely commercial operation. However, in the end, it is the world-class cultivars that he produced that make the real contribution to horticulture.

Following on from the introductory sections, Chapters 3-6 are essentially travelogues, and Ballard recounts Os's collecting trips to Borneo, Thailand, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and Vietnam. The main groups collected by Os appear to be magnolias, camellias, rhododendrons, and orchids, but many other plants were collected as well. Several species were brought into cultivation for the first time, especially for New Zealand, and it is interesting that comments are made on the increased difficulties in latter trips to import material under the new biosecurity regulations. As a consequence, several consignments were delayed or destroyed at the border.

The subsequent chapters logically shift focus to Os's hybridisation work; Magnolia (Chapter 7), Camellia (Chapter 8), Rhododendron (Chapter 9), and other plants (Chapter 10).

Magnolia Hybrid 'Star Wars' (M. campbellii x M. liliiflora) is an outstanding cultivar arising from his breeding programme, and is regarded as one of the best grown around the world. In 2003, Os received the Todd Gresham Award from the Magnolia Society International for his work on this genus.

Camellia 'Night Rider' is Os's best known camellia hybrid, and is still increasing in popularity worldwide for its dramatic foliage and dark red flowers.

The majority of Os's successful breeding of rhododendrons was in the Vireya group (the so-called "tropical" rhododendrons). As related by Ballard, Vireya rhododendrons have a short history of plant breeding, and provided an important opportunity for Os Blumhardt. He imported several species and produced many fine hybrids, including Rhododendron 'Tropic Glow', R. 'Saxon Glow', and R. 'Saxon Blush'.

This book is well illustrated with black and white photos and a central section in colour. Ballard's writing style is clear and she succeeds in making the subject matter interesting. There are a few small typographical errors and inconsistencies, especially misspellings for some of the plant names, but this is a minor quibble.

Although this book will never be as popular as, for example, yet another rose book, we do need more accounts like this. Books like Ballard's provide an interesting, historically important, and accurate record of our horticultural pioneers. In addition to the cultivars that live on, so too does the memory of the man who created them.

Also see the Weekend Gardener review of this book

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Last updated: March 1, 2021